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Ayub Kalule: The Road to The Fight With "Sugar" Ray Charles Leonard
Ayub Kalule, born in January 1954, is unanimously regarded as the gem of Uganda boxers. Among his significant amateur accolades are the Africa (Kampala), Commonwealth Games (Christchurch), and World Championship (Havana) victories all achieved in 1974. Kalule was crowned Africa Sportsman of the Year for 1974.
Kalule whose father was a Kampala butcher, was an excellent soccer player and sprinter when he was a schoolboy. But he soon came across and was intrigued by an article on Muhammad Ali. The impetus to box was also provided by his older brother Zaid who was a good amateur boxer. Kalule trained and practiced with his brother. Though Kalule is right-handed, he largely took on the boxing stance of Zaid who was a southpaw. Kalule would develop a good jab and hook.
While on a Uganda boxing team tour in Scandinavia, early in 1976, Kalule met Danish promoter Mogens Palle who offered to place him in the professional ranks. Within a month, Kalule left Uganda for Denmark, together with his wife Ziyada, daughters Marian and Zajida. Offspring later born, in Denmark included daughter Dauswa and son Sadat. Pressure had been placed on Kalule to remain in the amateur ranks, but his outstanding boxing success, the prospects of lucrative paychecks abroad, and the deteriorating political and economic climate during those years of the Idi Amin military regime, encouraged many Uganda boxers to leave for Europe. Some of the other pugilists who left Uganda in the 1970’s to box in Europe include Vitalish Bbege, Shadrach Odhiambo, Mustapha Wasajja, Cornelius Bbosa-Edwards, and Joseph Nsubuga. But it was also an era in which the numbers of Africans entering the professional realm was accelerating. Many Kenyan and Nigerian boxing champions also migrated for the lucrative fighting opportunities.
Kalule debuted as a professional pugilist in April 1976 in Copenhagen. Contrary to popular belief, he was not part of the Uganda team that was selected for the consequently boycotted Olympics in Montreal (July 18- 31, 1976). The Uganda team for Montreal included John Baker Muwanga (bantamweight), Venostos Ochira (light-flyweight), Adroni Butambeki (flyweight), Cornelius Boza-Edwards (featherweight), David Ssenyonjo (lightweight), Jones Okoth (light-welterweight), Vitalish Bbege (welterweight), and John Odhiambo (light-middleweight). And though listed, Boza-Edwards (future professional world champion) had already migrated to England and even represented England in at least three dual tournaments in early 1976. They were against Ireland, Denmark, and USA, and Boza-Edwards won in all of them.
In November 1977, Kalule became the leading contender for the World boxing Association (WBA). However, it would be nearly a full two years later, even after suing and legal action by Kalule’s management, that Kalule would be given a chance at the title. Mogens Palle would spend $20000 on traveling and pressing the WBA to maintain Kalule as number one contender and give him a shot at the title. The WBA was recognized as an extravagant, carefree, and flashy “fraternal club of Latin Americans” manned principally by Panamanians who had lucrative ties with apartheid South Africa and the Far East. The WBA sanctioned ridiculous title bouts, while blocking boxers that were far highly ranked. Mogens Palle would charge:
“These WBA people are all liars. Unless you send them mail that is registered, they claim they never receive it. You ask… for the rules, and they say they’ll send them, but… never do. You ask for justice… they say be patient… They don’t want anyone to have the rules, so no one will know when they are breaking them. When only the top people have the rules, they can play any game they want.” (Putman 1981)
Kalule became the Commonwealth middleweight champion when he knocked out Al Korovou of Fiji in May 1978 in Copenhagen. His biggest crown was his win over the Japanese Masashi Kudo whom he defeated in Tokyo, in October 1979, for the WBA junior-middleweight belt. His shot at the world title, for which he had been the foremost contender for more than a year, had for long been overdue. Kalule successfully defended his title four times, all the bouts in Denmark. At this time, apart from that one time in Tokyo, Kalule had never fought professionally outside Denmark. Kalule had, after tennis star Bjorn Borge, become the next renowned sports celebrity in Denmark.
The boxing world was quite divided as to who would win in the bout between 24 year-old “Sugar” Ray Charles Leonard and undefeated 27 year- old Kalule. Leonard had watched tapes of Kalule boxing and he said that he was, “quite impressed with Kalule’s constant attack; he fights with determination.” (AP 1981: 9)
Kalule’s strength lay in his being ambidextrous, in his strength, in his hard body, and in his stamina which were major factors in his wearing down opponents. But Kalule was more of a body-banger than a head-hunter. Though undefeated, Kalule’s knockout record was not excellent. Kalule had knocked out 18 of his opponents in his 36 professional bouts. And though impressed with aspects of Kalule, 5’10” Ray Leonard regarded 5’9″ Kalule as merely an advanced amateur fighter who in the ring stands straight-up in typical European style and goes directly to his opponent. And according to Leonard, Kalule was not fast enough in the ring. Though Kalule respected Leonard’s skills and status, Kalule was disappointed that popular Leonard was being treated as a Muhammad Ali, while he himself was being treated as the mediocre opponent and underdog.
While Leonard acknowledged that Kalule was a fit and well conditioned boxer who would be difficult to beat, the American predicted that he would end the fight within 10 rounds. On the other hand, renowned trainer Bob Arum was apparently Kalule’s biggest booster. He remarked, I expect it to go 15 tough rounds and I expect people to be standing at the end waiting to hear who won, and that winner being Kalule” (UPI 1981: 13). Kalule who had never been knocked down in a professional bout was adamant that Leonard had never faced an opponent like him, and that he would take his title back to Denmark. Kalule trained for much longer hours in the gym than did Leonard. Kalule’s trainer Borge Krogh, and his masseur Tage Nielsen were confident about their Ugandan fighter. Leonard, the World Boxing Council (WBC) welterweight champion would be attempting, in the quest for Kalule’s title, to become boxing’s only current dual title-holder. Impressive Leonard had only lost one fight in his professional career–a loss to legendary Roberto Duran of Panama.
In December 1979, in Denmark, 25 year-old Kalule defended his newly acquired WBA junior-middleweight title against American Steve Gregory who happened to be ranked third in the world. Gregory was also a sparring partner of Ray Leonard, both under renowned coach Angelo Dundee who was in Gregory’s corner during the fight with Kalule. Some suggested that Gregory was deliberately matched and sent over to Denmark as a test for the possible future Kalule vs. Leonard bout. Though Gregory was undefeated and highly ranked, he had not been as tested in the ring with tough opponents–he was the underdog.
Kalule outclassed and would out-point Gregory, whose hand became injured in the first round and who spent most of the time back-pedaling or hanging against the ropes, by a wide margin. The winner would take home an impressive $80000, and the loser grossed $40000. The world championship bout with Leonard, which was broadcast on short- circuit television, took place at Astrodome in Houston, amidst a crowd of between 25000 and 30000, on 25 June 1981. Leonard was guaranteed gross earnings of at least $2.5 million; while Kalule was guaranteed at least $150000. This would be Kalule’s greatest fight. Surprisingly, Leonard was in the first and second round the attacker of the solidly built Kalule. Leonard was the faster and more agile of the two boxers. This enabled him to hit Kalule as the champion struggled to figure Leonard out. Leonard’s compact jab convincingly penetrated Kalule’s defenses. The third round differed. Later on it would be revealed that a left hook delivery to Kalule’s head had resulted in the bruising of Leonard’s middle finger. The handicap would became permanent. Though the injury was troubling, Leonard valiantly attacked Kalule in round four, even dazing him a couple of times. Finishing Kalule off still remained hard, as Leonard seemed to ran into a brick wall each time he tried to subdue Kalule. The powerful exchange demonstrated just how unyielding and sturdy Kalule was.
Into round five, Kalule would establish control, mostly with his right hand. In round seven Kalule delivered a right to the challenger’s head. The blow knocked the Leonard off-balance. The challenger did recover, but Kalule gained confidence. Kalule exerted more toughness in the eighth round; Leonard was tiring and Kalule was establishing the upper hand. The ninth round was interesting. The pugilists looked exhausted but determined. The non-stop and no-holding exchange that had continued from the beginning of the bout did not show signs of waning.
Sturdy Kalule went on absorbing the challenger’s faster and more accurate punches in exchange for champion’s bruising, ambidextrous, and unpredictable blows. However the challenger did seem to sense that given the formidability of Kalule, the best solution would be for him to take the risk of delivering a quick flurry of combinations that would potentially disable Kalule. Leonard seemingly sensed that strong Kalule was also getting tired and slowing down. Near the end of round 9, Leonard delivered a series of hard combinations that seemingly confused the champion. A flash right hand knocked Kalule to the ground into a sitting position. He did not seem to be unduly hurt. He got up at the count of six, and backed up to the ropes of the neutral corner to further recover. The referee looked into Kalule’s face as he continued to count. Though Kalule stood up straight, the referee might not have been convinced that Kalule was ready to continue fighting. Kalule, who had heretofore never been knocked down and was probably temporarily at loss about how to react, did not raise his gloves to his face and step forward from the ropes to indicate as is the tradition, that he was ready to continue. The referee waved off the fight! Kalule appeared to be stunned by the stoppage, he shrugged his shoulders and arms in a protesting stance.
Most spectators probably opined that the fight was stopped prematurely, especially given that it was a global championship bought and given that Kalule was conscious enough to continue. Also, before the referee stopped counting, the ninth round had ended… but the bell was not rang. Ultimately, the fight was ruled as having been stopped at 3 minutes and 6 seconds of the ninth round. Kalule had hence been entitled to a minute-long stool corner interval, before moving on to the tenth round. Was the stoppage deliberate or otherwise a case of language miscommunication between Kalule and the Panamanian Spanish-speaking referee Carlos Berrocal who was also an assigned judge in the fight? Also one of the two-ringside judges was a Panamanian (Harmodio Cedeno), the other one was a Puerto Rican (Ismael Wiso Fernandez). And this was USA territory, popular Sugar Ray Leonard was a golden Olympian, one regarded as Muhammad Ali’s successor in terms of speed, skill, antics, and looks. Before the fight was stopped, the referees had scored Leonard as ahead by a couple of points: Berrocal (78-76), Cedeno (78-76), Fernandez (78-75).
Would Leonard have defeated Kalule if the fight had been allowed to continue? Probably. But though Kalule’s side was partly disappointed about the seemingly pre-mature stoppage of the fight, they were graceful about it and even conceded defeat. Kalule had planned to mount a full attack on Leonard after the ninth round, but then the knockdown had derailed the plan. Kalule, with his reserve of stamina was accustomed to fighting full bouts to the end. This was a 15-round title fight. Kalule conceded that Leonard was physically stronger than he had expected, Leonard admitted that Kalule was one of the best fighters that he had encountered. At this point only Roberto Duran of Panama had blemished Leonard’s record. Leonard would later in the year, in September 1981, defeat fellow American Thomas Hearns and be crowned USA Boxer of the Year. The fight with Kalule was regarded as a build-up for the fight against Hearns. A photo of Ayub Kalule fighting Ray Leonard graced the cover of “Sports Illustrated” of 6 July 1981.
After the fight with Leonard, Kalule would continue to fight at an average of three bouts a year–mostly in Denmark. He failed to recover the WBA junior middleweight title when he was knocked out in the tenth round by American Davey Moore in the middle of July 1982 in New Jersey. In November also in Atlantic City, in a non-title bout with Jamaican legend Mike McCallum, Kalule retired in the seventh round. In July 1985, in Copenhagen, Kalule won the vacant European Boxing Union (EBU) middleweight title when he knocked out Pierre Joly from Martinique. In December Kalule successfully defended his EBU title with a split decision win over legendary Sumbu Kalambay from Congo. In September 1986, in Sheffield, the Ugandan lost the title to Herol Graham when he was knocked out in the tenth round. This spelled the end of Kalule’s professional boxing career in which he impressively won 46 fights (23 knockouts), lost 4 (all by knockout), and drew none. He now lives in Uganda.
AP, “Sugar Ray Calls Foe ‘Advanced Amateur’.” Milwaukee Sentinel, (23 June, 1981).
Putman, Pat. “Fighting the Rulers of the WBA.” Sports Vault Illustrated (23 March 1981).
UPI. “Leonard, Hearns Fight Tonight.” Logansport Pharos-Tribune (25 June, 1981).
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